There are plenty of Google Doodles that confuse the uninitiated, and James Wong Howe was certainly one of them. The Chinese-American cinematographer was one of the more obscure figures to score his own Doodle, but also one of the most deserving. Here are five fast facts that you need to know about the man who changed the way you see movies.
1) Howe moved to America early in his life, where he found inspiration through a small camera
Howe was born in Canton Province (now Guangdong) in China back in 1899. It wasn’t long before he moved to the United States, though, as his father had gotten a job on the railroads. His family moved to Pasco, Washington, where he bought a Brownie camera at town landmark Pasco Drug.
During his teen years, Howe started out as a boxer but then moved to San Francisco to pursue aviation school. When he ran out of money, he moved to Los Angeles, where he took a number of odd jobs, including some low-level employment in the motion picture industry. Working as an extra clapper boy on “The Little American,” he came into contact with famed director Cecil B. DeMille.
His big break, however, came when he began to take still photos of Hollywood stars.
2) His innovative techniques caught the attention of Hollywood’s movers and shakers
Film during the 1910s and 1920s was a much more delicate and complicated thing than it was in decades to come, which could come with drawbacks for certain stars. Take Mary Miles Minter, an actress with light blue eyes. Today, of course, that would be a tremendous asset. However, with the film at the time, it made her look expressionless.
To solve this, Howe came up with a trick: He had Minter look at a black velvet surface. This gave her eyes a darker hue and got Howe in the good graces of Minter. She demanded that Howe be the director of photography on her next project. During “Drums of Fate,” Howe placed black velvet around the camera to achieve the desired effect.
Howe continued to work during the silent film era as a cinematographer and even went to China to shoot some footage on an uncompleted project. When he returned, “talkies” were all the rage and he found it hard to get work. It wasn’t until 1931’s “Transatlantic,” which featured Edmund Lowe and Myrna Loy, that he found success in the new medium.
3) You’ve probably seen Howe’s most famous film — “The Thin Man”
While James Wong Howe worked on over 130 pictures, it’s his work on one of the most legendary Hollywood productions of all time, “The Thin Man,” that’s probably most remembered.
If you haven’t watched “The Thin Man,” you probably ought to rectify this oversight as soon as possible. The film is nominally a murder mystery starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles; however, the film is mostly about the protagonists exchanging many well-timed barbs over many, many martinis. Oh, and there’s also Asta, one of the few movie dogs that don’t wear out their welcome.
As with most of Howe’s work, it looks exquisite, with beautiful 1930s-era sets setting the mood for a film that’s mostly about the verbal comedic exchanges between its actors. As Roger Ebert noted, “That ‘The Thin Man’ cost so little and looks so good is possibly because the interiors are simple and elegant, and the black and white photography flatters the loungewear and formalwear worn by a great-looking cast.”
4) Howe worked up until two years before his death in 1976
And he earned two Oscars for cinematography along the way, out of 10 nominations. His two wins came for “The Rose Tattoo” in 1956 and “Hud” in 1963. He collapsed on the set of his last film — 1974’s “Funny Lady,” starring Barbra Streisand. It earned him his 10th Academy Award nomination.
Google notes that along the way, Howe was responsible for plenty of innovations, such as how “he used lighting, framing, and minimal camera movement to express emotion … He pioneered using wide-angle lenses, low key lighting, and color lighting. Howe also made early use of the crab dolly, a camera dolly with four wheels and a movable arm supporting the camera.”
Being of Chinese origin, he also faced significant discrimination, both in Hollywood and from the government. He couldn’t become a citizen until the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943 and his marriage to a white woman wasn’t recognized until 1948 because of anti-miscegenation laws.
5) Howe was going to get a Google Doodle earlier, but Hurricane Harvey got in the way.
“We planned to run this same Doodle honoring James Wong Howe in the U.S. last year,” Google said upon unveiling the Doodle.
“However, when Hurricane Harvey struck the southern United States, we withheld the Doodle from running nationally out of respect to the events and relief effort. Though we don’t usually run Doodles more than once, Howe left such a unique and indelible mark on American cinema that we decided to run the Doodle this year on the anniversary of the release of one of his most notable works, The Thin Man (1934) – and also just in time for Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month!”
They certainly couldn’t have picked a better time or a better American. Here’s to you, James Wong Howe.
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